People Doing Terrible Things to Books, But (Possibly) Not Being Terrible Themselves
Posted on February 5, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 119 Comments
Late last month writer Alex Christofi posted a tweet about how he would physically cut long books in half to make them more “portable,” thus revealing himself as history’s worst monster, and also, starting up an internet conversation about how people treat their books. This has lead Slate to reprint an essay by Anne Fadiman about how people love their books — either in a “courtly” fashion (i.e., treating them respect and sometimes reverence) or in a “carnal” fashion (i.e., they’re physical objects meant to be used, so use them, up to and including dog earing them, cracking their spines or even slicing them in half). I’ve never come across this essay before, but I had a complex response to it when I read it, so I want to talk about it a little bit.
The first thing I should note is that I am heavily — heavily — in the camp that treats books carefully, if not actually “reverently.” I think books are practical things, meant to be used; if I buy one for myself, it’s because I’m going to open it up and read it, and I’m not going to worry too much if while reading it I ding a corner or fox a cover or whatever. At the same time, if I’ve purchased a book, I intend to keep it, and I’m going to treat it well, to the point that I suspect that for many people who look at the books I’ve had for years, they might suspect that I haven’t opened them up at all. I have. I’m just… careful.
You might think this is because I’m a writer myself, but that isn’t it, not exactly. It’s more to do with being a reader, and my own personal background. I grew up poor and had a lot of books that came to me secondhand and in various states of repair, so I learned early on that if I didn’t want a book to fall apart on me, I had to be careful with it. Likewise, most of my books were paperbacks, whose durability was easily compromised if one was not careful. The books that weren’t mine were usually library books, which I also treated carefully lest I incur the wrath of a librarian. Finally — look, they’re books. Books did amazing things and told you cool stuff. They deserved not to be treated like crap. All of this went into the pot with regard to how I formed my physical relationship with books.
This is why, if you ever see a paperback I own, it looks, if not pristine, at least very well kept. None of my paperbacks have broken spines (unless they came to me already broken) or dogeared pages, and very few have creased covers. College textbooks I’ve kept are unmarked with notes; I would have dorm mates ask to borrow my books, convinced they would chock full of useful highlights and margin notes, and were confused and I suspect in a couple of cases actually offended when neither of those were on the pages. My hardcovers are likewise generally mar-and-mark free. Again, if I drop or bump a book while I’m reading it and it gets a crease or smudge on it, I’m not going to freak out; it’s a book and it’s meant to be used and things like that happen. But there’s a difference between wear and tear happening because you’re using a material object as intended, and wear and tear happening because you’re going out of your way to damage the object.
Which brings us back to Fadiman’s essay, where she talks about people tearing, marking, and even physically destroying books as they consume the words inside them, not because they are (to their mind) disrespecting the book, but rather they are using the book as they see it ought to be used, and their relationship to the book and its permanence is different. If you consider a paperback as cheap and eminently disposable, for example, what does it matter if you rip out the chapters as you go along? It’s just a paperback book. If you want to re-read the book later, you can just get another cheap paperback copy. Likewise dogearing, highlighting, cracking spines and all the other things people do to their books — far less dramatic than physically tearing the book apart, but still.
And… I guess? I should be very clear that you should treat your own books as you will, and I will absolutely not judge you for it: At signings people come up to me with worn books and apologize for them even as they ask me to sign them, and I tell them, sincerely, that I am never offended by a well-loved book. It’s not disrespectful to read a book so much it falls apart; pretty much the opposite, really. But I literally don’t think I could get one of my own books to that particular state of repair. I don’t know that I have it in me to let a book get to that point — much less intentionally and with forethought take a book and slice it in half, just to make it easier to carry around. I just cannot even imagine doing that. To be any more alien to my own mindset, you’d probably have to be from Mars.
(And if you do terrible things to books that are not your own… well. Many years ago, a friend noted I had two unmarred paperback copies of the novelization of the movie Stargate, and after mocking me for having them at all (I had gotten one of them as part of the press pack for the movie junket; I have no idea where the other had come from) he took one of them and cracked its spine. And yes, it was a duplicate, and yes, it wasn’t the greatest novel ever written, and yes, this person is an otherwise kind and decent person who lives a good life and is kind to pets and children. Nevertheless it is forever a black mark in the annals of their life and I will judge them for it until the heat death of the universe, so there.)
I don’t have any great insights to offer here other than to note that Fadiman’s distinction between courtly and carnal book lovers has caused me to consider that people who mangle their books might not love those books (or the ideas in them) any less than I do, which is an idea that makes me intensely uncomfortable because you just don’t do that to books damn it. But I guess some people do. I don’t understand it. I can’t endorse it. The best I can do is almost unwillingly begrudge that she may — may — have a point. And I hate it.
I should note this essay is not considering those who actively dislike books and/or the ideas that might be contained in them, and thus seek to destroy books in order to destroy the ideas. Fuck those people. Fuck those people straight into Hell.
I would be curious to know whether not giving much of a toss about the condition of your car is consistent with not caring much about the appearance of your books. I am of a similar mind on both, where so long as the appearance damages don’t impact the ability for it to be useful (drivable/readable) I don’t care one whit. I wash my car and my books with almost identical frequency.
Actually, if dusting qualifies as a similar action to washing I probably keep my books cleaner…
I have highlighted/underlined important bits in nonfiction books. Particularly memorable phrases in fiction books, I make a “note to file”, and often use it as an excuse to practice calligraphy at the same time. Now… I *used* to dog ear pages in paperbacks to mark my place, etc., when I was younger. They also got carried in my hip pocket, so I always had one with me, and wasn’t at risk of losing my bookmark, and my place with it. I loved all of those books, read some of them multiple times, and always had one with me. I did *not* treat hardcovers this way – I usually stored the dustjacket and put my own covers on them, that I could replace easily. And absolutely would I never library books that way.
I was also often “chaotic good”, from that chart. ;)
I am somewhere between Lawful Good and Neutral Good. I try to use a real bookmark, but sometimes grab some stray piece of paper. I take reasonable care while reading a book.
Neutral good, tyvm.
I am mostly with Scalzi, but in college and then particularly grad school, I became an active reader, thinking of many kinds of books as tools and marking them up with notes, highlights, and underscores. If someone comes to possess my copies in the future, I hope they enjoy the company. (I am very pleased with a previous reader of Memoirs of the Polish baroque: the writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a squire of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania and a little disappointed that they didn’t make it all the way through.) Now that I review a fair amount, these practices help me when I am writing things up. I try to keep post-it flags handy so that I can use those rather than dog-ear pages to note the quotations I want to pull later, but I don’t always succeed.
I think the only books I have read to destruction are Good Omens and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I now own multiple copies of both.
I’ve almost completely converted to ebooks for new acquisitions myself. They are much easier on my middle-aged, cataract-removed eyes. But my daughter is an avid paper book reader and she does something that’s not on that 3×3 grid at all; she memorizes the page number and retains it until the next reading session. If she slips up on this, she’s never complained about it.
Chaotic neutral, but never open enough to break the spine. Or I use the book flap as a bookmark in a hardcover book. I do not write in my books, but I have written in textbooks and used the old highlighter. Our local bookstore used to buy back books to sell as used books, and the buyers said I could certainly sell them my books anytime, because they tended to appear pristine and unread — even though I certainly read them. I definitely own too many — but we all have our vices.
I was broke for a couple of decades, so my books are nearly all 2nd hand copies and arrived in a non-pristine state. Books are to be read vigorously, which probably means crinkled pages, turned corners & coffee stains. Definitely scribbled in. I love it when books have annotations from previous readers. I also write my name, the month/year & location in the front cover to remind me who I was when I found & read it.
Having said that, I do get very precious about graphic novels, or books where the illustrations are important. When the words are the only thing, I can’t get excited about the condition of the format.
In answer to Don Whiteside, when my car goes to the garage for repairs, they will sometimes wash & clean my car for me. I rarely notice.
There are a few (large) books that I was happy to get in e-book form, because the spines of well-made, cared-for hardbacks had cracked on more than one copy. [Neal Stephenson might be in the line of fire here.] Paper books are delicate objects no matter how well you treat them, and should be treated well accordingly — but not too much so, because if you aren’t willing to take it to the park to read, you’re kind of missing its primary purpose.
I compared it to putting raisins in mac and cheese. I want no part of it but if that’s how you want to live, who am I to stop you?
I’m an absolutist on this: books are on loan to me from posterity, and I am under a moral obligation to pass them on to posterity none the worse for wear. I sit at the bookstore with a French Bible from 1798, printed in the Netherlands for Protestant refugees. I can open that book, and if I spoke that language I could use it right there and then, as the publisher intended. I hope and pray that whatever customer buys that book sees it the same way, and respects it enough that this continues to be true.
Ideally, I hope the same should be true for Dan Brown paperbacks and everything else, all the way down to copies of NONE DARE CALL IT TREASON and A TEXAN LOOKS AT LYNDON.
Cracked its spine? Cracked its spine???
As a librarian, I don’t care what you do to your books, as long as you don’t do it to the library’s books. Mind you, I’ve also been known to shelve my own books by color, instead of any other cataloging system, and it’s hilarious to see how many people are outraged and personally offended that I’d dare shelve my own books in my own house in a way that pleases me. (It’s not that hard to find them, really: books in the same subject tend to stick with similar jacket designs so most aren’t shelved that far apart, and I’ve got a pretty good visual memory for book covers so I’m only searching one or two shelves before I find the one I’m looking for.)
My parents used to read paperbacks on long overseas trips, and cut off and throw out sections after they’d read them, for weight reasons. They are much happier traveling with multiple tablets and e-readers, because it turns out that as bits, a large book doesn’t weigh noticeably more than a small one.
My mother raised us to take good care of books. Like you, we were poor, and books were valuable far beyond their expense. Books were vacations, tools, symposia with Interesting Mnds, recreation… sources of richness in our lives and worthy of respect.
That said, my mother in her later years morphed somewhat into a ‘carnal’ lover of certain books, in that she became a copious and inveterate annotator. (Always in pencil, though…) But some of her books have become more “conversations” than books. I can read them and hear not just the author, but her comments to the author, her comments on the author’s thoughts, her speculations on other paths or possibilities the author might have taken.
And I love that in her books and now that she is fading away, I will cherish these books as enduring parts of her as well as, well… books!
I, however, have also morphed in my approach to books. I still take good care of the ones I have decided to keep as paper books. But I have moved much of my ‘recreational reading’ library to electronic media, and it left me with many, many shelves of books to find homes for. All the ones in good shape I donated to a little rural community library just starting out.
But there were a few dozen old friends that had mostly been acquired second-hand (I was an inveterate browser at library sales and second-hand book shops) and they were tired, battered, sore and worn. And these I agonized over because I had always believed that it was the worst possible heresy to throw away ANY book, no matter what condition it was in.
Finally with much encouragement from Marie Kondo and my esposo, I lovingly thanked each of these old friends and sent them off to the recycling. Their words will be with me forever, their battered covers, limp and torn pages, etc. are no more. And I’m okay with that.
My mother was a librarian. One returned book had been bookmarked with a slice of bacon.
Lawful good here, books are to be read, loved, cherished.
@Marnie MacLean – does anybody actually DO that? Bleah!
My first husband was very particular about the treatment of books, and I picked up the habit. Unfortunately that does not save the old paperbacks; some of my favorites now drop dry, crackely pages when opened, and some of them have not been reprinted. Stupid entropy.
My professor suggested that students cut our giant Riverside Shakespeare text into individual plays to ensure we’d all bring it up Bascom Hill to class.
Neutral good here. I confess to cracking a spine but never deliberately but because a paperback was so thick (for example Stephen King’s The Stand) that I have read more than once and I habitually read when I eat. I have also re-read some paperbacks so often that they have started to fall apart.
I hit 5/9 boxes, depending on my location, my mood, the time, and the availability of any type of bookmark.
I guess that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds!
Raw or cooked bacon?
I’ve always taken loving care of books. I’m not sure if it is because my dad was a high school English teacher or if it was because we didn’t have much money growing up or if I’m just careful, but I was a neutral good.
Years ago I got into the habit of using “page points” – little paper clip like thingies that not only mark the page but where you are on the page. I use a new one for each book I start so you can tell something about books in my house – how far from the end I was before my last session of reading. Sometimes this point is less than half way into the book because I abandoned it, sometimes its a couple of pages from the end, sometimes its many pages from the end because I got caught up in the story and read until I finished. None of my books are damaged if I can help it and if I do damage one accidentally I’ve been known to buy a new copy to have a pristine one on my shelf.
Then there’s people who love and treasure books, yet, somehow, still damage them.
I do not lend my mother paperbacks anymore, because they always come back looking like they’ve been read about fifty times, no matter how careful she tries to be.
I don’t mind my books getting to that state, if they’ve actually been read repeatedly. (Or I have no way of knowing, because I got them in that state.)
I find the fortune slips from Chinese “fortune cookies” to be the perfect bookmarks — small enough not to block the text, large enough to be easily seen, light enough to be easily moved from page to page, and durable enough that picking up a book after it has been on the shelf for years, the slip still works for the next read-through. In time every book I own may have its own fortune slip.– and I now posses over 4,000 physical books.
I found highlighting and annotating college texts part of their proper function, and if a marginal note was good enough for Pierre Fermat, who am I to argue? But I do not mark works of fiction, except for “Ex Libris” and my name on the half-title (or perhaps a book plate or an embossing stamp with the same message) and my name also on Pages 75 and 275. Oh, and an author’s autograph when i am lucky.
I will carry a paperback in my hip pocket when carrying a book bag is not convenient, but only with an easily replaced and none-too-thick book. This is not good for a book, but with a bit of care not too bad for it.
I hate to recycle or trash any book, but sometimes there is no other course — and quite a few PBs have simply fallen apart as the glue deteriorated over time — usually to be replaced if copies are available.
I do feel that books re to be read, and except in a very few cases i will read one wherever i am going to be, including on the beach (hmm there’s a title) or at a lunch where there is soem risk of damage. But I try to be at least reasonably careful with any book.
I am not a keeper!
If a book is good, I pass it along to the next person I think might enjoy it. If a book is ahem, “not for me” I donate it to the next organization doing a book drive. If a book is reprehensible (there’s just been the one) I trash it.
Since I keep them moving, I don’t write in books or dogear or post-it. I have a collection of bookmarks I make good use of so when I do pass along a book, it is in excellent condition.
I only keep books that have been signed or have some other personal connection. Before you ask, my shelves are FULL of books and my TBR pile is at near bar-JENGA proportions.
If you hadn’t read that essay of Fadiman’s before, then you haven’t read the collection it comes from, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Which makes you very lucky, because now you get to read it for the first time! And all of it is that good, as is her next collection, At Large and At Small.
I mostly read ebooks now because I like the format and how many books i can travel with in a compact package, but most of my actual books are like how you describe, well cared for, not dog eared, but if something happened during the course of reading no biggie.
I loaned one of my hardback wheel of time books (one of the late ones that were very long) to a coworker and he cracked the spine while reading it. He offered to buy me a new one but i said no, although I was upset that it happened to a book i loaned out. The book was still readable, so no reason to replace it. I don’t even remember who did it at this point, but i am still bothered a little that it is broken even though I haven’t opened it in years and I have the complete series on my ebook reader now.
I would like to say there is a square missing in that table. I always memorized the page number I was on and never used a bookmark in my paper books.
Like others commenting, I tended to treat hardcovers and paperbacks. Hardcovers were read in the house. Paperbacks were portable, and could be jammed into a back pocket, tossed into a lunchbox, get left in a hot car, etcetera; also susceptible to dog-earing. I outgrew the practice as I got older.
The real advantage to digital media, for me, has been with audiobooks. I listen almost exclusively to audiobooks from the library, and when they were cassettes or CDs, besides being bulky, I always worried about possible loss or heat damage. (I listened to a lot at work; downloading an audiobook from Overdrive onto my phone is lots better.
What if anything would a decent person do with/about a book that embodies truly evil ides? Say “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, “The Turner Diaries” and other works containing what I can only call the advocacy of evil? I don’t approve of book-burning (which is why Ferinheight 451 was a work of horror, as was the earlier work “Pillar of Fire” in which that theme was developed by RB) but there does need to be some way of expressing a strong view in such cases, i think.
An unexpected nice side-effect of indie publishing is that I’ve come to see my books as artifacts. I really love choosing the cover, font, illustrations, etc. (All with expert help of course.) And so, when the paperback is out, along with seeing it as “a book,” I see it as a kind of successful craft project.
Mostly Neutral Good here, with occasional lapses into Lawful or Chaotic Neutral.
I have a sort of reverence for the physical forms of books, which is largely obsolete. I’ve never made a marginal note in one, or otherwise marked one up, so far as I can recall. I absorbed this attitude early, before I really started reading, but it was reinforced by the sentiments of Heinlein protagonists, who strongly influenced my thinking about a lot of things for a long time.
On occasions when I’ve read books that previously passed through the hands of marker-uppers or highlighters, I have often had cause to wonder “WTF were they thinking, picking that passage to underline?”
somewhere between neutral and lawful good here.
I guess that’s the advantage of having huge tracts of land – it’s much harder to find the grave of the Stargate spine-cracker, and you have plenty of room for more of them.
There is only one time in my life I ever systematically destroyed books and it was because I love to read. The summer after a stint in grad school, I spent 6 weeks wandering Europe. This was decades before Kindle or other portable electronics. I would buy a very long paperback novel so it would last a while, but tear out parts that I’d read because they weighed a lot and took up space in my one bag. I felt a little guilty about it, but that method meant that I could buy fewer books (English books being very expensive in those countries) and not run out of reading material.
One more reason I love my Kindle – I can pack dozens of books to take with me at the cost of almost no weight when I travel!
Per the first poster, I treat books a lot better than any car I ever had. Not to say that I mistreat cars, but no, a car has never been to me an extension of my persona whereas books are what I give to people I’m flirting with. Hell with flowers, what do they say about a person?
And looking after them is an extension of that trust. Not doing that has always been a deal-breaker.
My own books, I read pretty much the same way our host does; I have ones I’ve had for thirty years and you can tell that they’ve been well-loved, but also that they’ve not been ill-treated. The spines might show creases but they’ve never been broken and they won’t be dog-eared.
I don’t mark the pages of fiction books I own but I’ve recently taken to underlining passages in essay, poetry, and non-fiction books. If I ever begin to study fiction (which I might, there’s a really good MLitt in Fantasy at the uni I live beside) then I might mark up passages in paperbacks I buy for study purposes.
I think the difference has been that I intend to refer to these passages and quote them specifically to other people, rather that include them in myself. And yeah, I believe the text is the thing (and destroying texts is a sin); the artefact is valuable, if it is valuable, for its historical interest. Which might include previous owners’ annotations.
I felt the same way after reading that essay many moons ago. Though I have always LOVED getting old library books or used textbooks with funny things written in the margins by previous readers. (So long as they’re not racist/sexist/etc.)
I have been everything from Lawful Good to Neutral Evil.
I can’t regularly use “proper” bookmarks because I leave them in books and then don’t know where they are. So a scrap of paper or an envelope or a tissue or something gets used a lot. If I don’t have one to hand, a pen or something will do but it’s not ideal.
I’ve been known to dog-ear pages in a paperback but not a hardcover. I’ve cracked spines if the damned spine won’t open wide enough for me to read the book easily.
If it’s not my book, though, it gets treated with absolute respect and care, to be returned in the condition I got it in.
‘Lawful Evil’. I dog-ear without shame. It’s MY book, I paid for it. I have been known to get chocolate stains on books as well. (I don’t read while eating anything that requires mustard.)
And while I generally recycle books to the used store or the local library, I have tossed a few into the recycle bin. Generally paperbacks in poor condition.
I did once trash a fine copy of something because it was so boring I could not inflict it on a stranger. Sue me.
I once cut a hole in a hardcover book so that something could be hidden in it.
In my defense, first, it was a Readers Digest condensed book. Second, the hole was to hide the “float” cash for a small business, so that it could not be easily stolen by a burglar. Third, the business was a small-town bookstore.
Even so, I felt uncomfortable doing it.
I’m a librarian’s daughter. I’ve been known to eat/snack and get crumbs/drips on my books. But I would NEVER crack a spine. And dog-earring implies some self-control of putting down a book before finishing it, that I rarely have.
My mother was a grade school librarian. She had way of enforcing proper book handling. Ways that earner her the nickname “Witchy-Wyman”. Your ‘friend’ would not have committed such a sin in her presence. He would have had nightmares for weeks for even thinking of such a thing.
Oh, and if I want to save a particular passage to read aloud or have handy for later use or something, I’ll photocopy the page or take a picture of it with my phone. I don’t write in books.
Your friend is evil and should be shunned by all right thinking people.
I’m somewhat baffled that apparently everybody needs to mark their books. I just remember where I was. I used to remember the exact page, but nowadays I seem to read 6 or so books at once and I’m just going through the one in front of me until I’ve found where I stopped. I guess it’s the “Lawful lazy”-method since I just don’t like handling a bookmark while reading and don’t want to go searching for one when done reading.
I would never leave a book open face down, dog-ear pages or rip out pages (one shudders!). I realized also that I don’t break spines, even so until a few years ago I didn’t even know that that part of the book is called spine and can be broken…
Growing up we had a few books which where falling apart (apparently just very low quality) and I guess that’s where I learned to handle books with care.
Also being from Germany I despise the idea of destroying books in general, and more so if it’s done to abolish the ideas within.
Despite that I grew to like the idea of complimenting the author when handing over a thouroughly thumbed-up book for signing – basically showing how much that book played a role in one’s life – when I read about it the first time in “Good Omens”. And you made a similar argument a few years back as well as in the above post.
I do like having a snack while reading though so there is the occasional stain in some of my books…
I wouldn’t normally damage a book on purpose, but I felt very liberated when I saw a friend’s “Europe on $5 a Day”. He had ripped out the countries he was going to, and left the other countries at home. Of course, now I take that sort of book electronically, but at the time it seemed like a great idea.
Benjamin Walther: I’m somewhat baffled that apparently everybody needs to mark their books. I just remember where I was.
Yes! Me, too. And if I can’t remember where I was, that means I’ve probably forgotten the part of the book I’ve read already and need to at least skim from the beginning.
In fact, the internet just ate an attempted post, in which I complained that I didn’t know where to put myself on this scale. “Lawful Lazy”–I’ll take it!
I have actually purposefully destroyed a book only once.
I was going on a trip to the wine regions of France and Germany. I have a lovely book, The World Atlas of Wine. I wanted to take it with me, but of course being a coffee table book, that was impractical. So I got another copy, a trade paperback, and used a razor to slit out the eighty or so pages dealing with the regions I was planning to visit. This was a strategy proposed by Rick Steves, the eminent travel author.
When I got back home, I carefully put the pages back in the book, it sits as a second copy in a box, waiting for another trip to a wine region.
And I still feel sick, sometimes, knowing that I was so disrespectful to a book.
I was raised to treat books as nearly sacred objects too, but now I can say that I hit every one of the nine categories on that chart. Part of it is just that I read too much; I mark the page I’m on with whatever’s handy, and that might be the library slip or a kleenex and if nothing is handy, it gets dog-eared.
But really what changed was a particular book I was given by my ex-husband, who was regularly unfaithful, and when I told him I was leaving went to a therapist who told him he was a sex addict, so on his therapist’s advice he gave me a book on sex addiction. Trying to save the marriage, or at least make me feel sorry for how victimized he was by his situation so I would feel too sorry for him to leave, but it didn’t work–largely because I read the book and found it so unbelievably atrociously offensive. This author harped endlessly on the Family Systems underlying Sex Addiction; everyone in the family played a role! Everyone in the family supported the addiction! At the time, we had a two-year-old-daughter, and I was not having it.
So this book that I hated so much, that blamed my toddler for my ex cheating?
I toted it faithfully through several moves after the divorce.
Until after the most recent move, when I was unpacking it and held it and wondered where to put it, it occurred to me that I had *paid people* to treat this book safely and carry it to my new home, when I *hated* it and felt insulted by it. I couldn’t donate it; it was so awful I felt terrible being even the proxy cause of anyone else reading it; but also, it was a book, so it could not be damaged. But after that move, holding that book, I decided it was worth only the ideas inside it, and I ripped it up for art supplies.
That rather opened the floodgates. I’ve always highlighted non-fiction books that I know I’m going to keep, but now? You know how much I love a non-fiction book by the number both of overall comments and the colours of pens used to write those comments, as this means multiple readings and new reflections every time. I dog-ear pages that I really love so I can find them easily later, when I want to refer to them in a review or post or email or conversation. There are books of poetry I love with half the pages dog-eared. To me, books are a conversation, and highlighting and writing comments are speaking to the book.
Even novels will get marginalia and underlining–if there’s a passage I’m trying to take apart to see how it works, or if it speaks to me or something I’m working on particularly and I want to be able to find it again, to use it. I’m careful with library books, though even there I will temporarily dog-ear pages that I want to come back to or refer to in a review.
At this point, for me, the “book” is no longer the physical object. The physical object that I purchase or borrow is just the means for delivery; the “book” is what happens to my brain when I read it.
Oh, and if I read a book that I own and will probably keep forever, if there is a phrase in a foreign language that I look up, I’ll write the translation to the side. Think “Dum vivimus vivamus” from Glory Road.
Variant of lawful good; I use all the old business cards from past jobs. They’re a good size, not too thick, sufficiently durable and abundantly available.
As a child/teen I dog-eared my own paperbacks (never hard backs, never library books). I’ve written in school books (as instructed) and in cookbooks (because every recipe needs at least some annotation).
I love that my library prints out a little due-date slip so every library books gets its own built-in bookmark.
I did once throw a book in the recycling – it was a book that claimed to have a method to treat back pain (as recommended by my doctor), but when I applied the methods actually caused me injury to the point that I missed work. I didn’t want to risk anyone else getting hurt by that book, so it went in the recycle.
(I’ve worked as a preservation librarian and at a used book store.)
As a librarian, I can say that the “books are sacred objects, never to be desecrated!” attitude makes my life very difficult at times. Library collections need to be weeded regularly, and many, many, MANY books can and should be thrown away. Yes, thrown away. Put in the trash. Binned. Shredded. The onset of frantic pearl clutching whenever we put a book in the dumpster is very tiresome. “Just donate them to someone who wants them! There are so many people who want something to read! Little Free Libraries! Prisons!” Holy Mother of God in a lobster bib, to quote my favorite author. A crumbling book about Y2K with bugs coming out of it and mold on every page…NO ONE WANTS IT. No, not even someone researching the history of Y2K. Yeah, yeah – for every book its reader, thanks, Ranganathan – but we’re too busy, you know, running the library to hunt down the one soul who will cherish that 1987 Harlequin paperback and whisk it to book heaven. (Also, there is no paper recycling where I live – it’s the landfill or keep it forever.)
And for the love of all you consider holy – please, PLEASE make sure your local library wants, needs and can use your rejects. Even just for their book sale. And yes, there are many books that aren’t even wanted for the book sale. And don’t tell the library staff to just throw away what we don’t want – dispose of your own trash, it is not our job.
I should note this essay is not considering those who actively dislike books and/or the ideas that might be contained in them, and thus seek to destroy books in order to destroy the ideas. Fuck those people. Fuck those people straight into Hell.
Ah yes. John Scalzi, the vaunted defender of free speech, as seen via rock-solid advocation of de-platforming, enthusiastic support of political violence (from a comfortable living room, of course), unusually censorious personal moderation practices, support for politically-motivated firings, and other such positions that evince a deep commitment to the values of free inquiry and personal expression.
Yes, free speech is clearly – clearly! – a cornerstone of your personal philosophy.
On the subject of people who believe books are to be consumed both literally as well as intellectually, I am reminded of this anecdote told by Maurice Sendak:
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
In general I’m very much a reader like you and for much the same reasons, but some of the truly ridiculous bricks have tried both my patience and the strength of my wrists, so I saw that post about cutting books in half in order to make them easier to manage as physical objects and recognized a clever solution to a problem I’ve shared. If anything it feels like a failure of publishers’ imaginations to just lump everything in one volume and ship it.
A canny publisher, observing this, might consider republishing Infinite Jest in whatever the opposite of an omnibus edition is, in a boxed set of several smaller volumes and a thin one for the endnotes or whatever the bit is that people like to keep handy for reference while they read. Or something even more creative and Kickstarter-worthy.
Hey, Lol, have you read “The Library Book”? Did you know that systematic book burning is often part of genocide campaigns? Do you understand that this might be behind our gracious host’s vehemence?
Also, where the heck are you getting “enthusiastic support of political violence” from any part of this post? You must have been reading something else.
I’m mostly a true neutral (most of my reading is on my ereader), but tend to lawful good when reading paper. My local library loves my donations because they look like they just came off the bookstore shelf.
I avoided lending books to my mother, though, because she was evil neutral. The first thing she always did was crack the spine, much to my horror. She would also cheerfully abandon the book wherever she was when she finished it, while I have a massive hoard of books in my house.
I do not fetishize books, not these days. I’ve destroyed books that I judged worthless or obnoxious. I regularly trade with a second hand books store for new reading material. But I draw my own line at being disrespectful to public library books. And should I need to annotate ANY book, I use post-it notes. Reading other people’s notes, high-lights or underscoring is just SO tedious. Why should I put others through my own inane comments? Well, on the other hand, I just did so…
This idea of carnal vs courtly love of books never occurred to me either, and while I can understand it intellectually, I don’t think that I’ll ever truly believe in my gut that carnal love is truly a love of books.
Your discussion of your view of books resonated with me – I was also raised poor, discovered very young that books were magical, and was generally careful with my things in general. I have a couple of books that I’ve had since I was 4, and I will never forgive my mother for unpacking my carefully preserved collection of comfort food books and giving them to my toddler siblings when I left for college.
I used to be rougher on my paperbacks, because I would stuff at least one in my purse every day so I would have something to read during slow times at work. My Kindle fits in the purse much better.
I bookmark physical books with whatever piece of paper is handy. I have some “real” bookmarks, but most of them were bought at a convention art show and are too fancy for regular use.
And there is one friend I will never loan a book to again, after he borrowed one of my nonfiction hardcovers and returned it with a torn jacket and almost every page dog-eared.
I think at one time I’ve done just about all of those except for the Chaotic Evil one. Although, while I do own many bookmarks, I’ve never owned one that was leather or had my initials. But other than that, yeah.
These days I’m mostly in the lawful good/neutral good categories, but I’m still not above grabbing a random object to use as a temporary bookmark if an actual bookmark isn’t within reach. And if I’m using a scrap of paper as a bookmark, I will frequently wind up tearing off a bit of it to use as a bookmark in a different book.
I’ve always been one who loves books, both for their content and in their own right. I learned that at my father’s knee (he was an English professor) when he read to me as a small child and produced wonder from the printed page. Many years ago now he shared with me a poem that expressed exactly what books meant to him, and one that still resonates with me. It is a paean to both the courtly and the carnal love of books. With John’s indulgence, I’ll share it now:
A poem by Dr. Jerry Sterns
Books will be replaced by electronic libraries, talking videos,
interactive computers, CD-Roms with 100s of volumes, gigabytes
of memory dancing on pixelated screens at which we will blearily
stare into eternity, and so I Sing the Song of the Book:
Nothing more voluptuous do I know than sitting with bright
pictures upon my lap and turning glossy pages of giraffes and
Gauguins penguins and pyramids.
I love wide atlases, delineating the rise and fall of empires, the
trade routes from Kashkar to Samarkand.
I love heavy dictionaries, their tiny pictures, complicated columns,
minute definitions of incarnitive, and laniary, hagboat and fopdoodle.
I love the texture of pages, the high gloss slickness of magazines
as slippery as oiled eels,
the soft nubble of old books, delicate India paper so thin that my
hands tremble trying to turn the fluttering dry leaves and the
yellow coarse cheap paper of mystery novels so gripping that I
don’t care if the plane circles Atlanta forever, because it is a full
moon and I am stalking in the Arizona desert a malevolent shaped shifter.
I love the feel of ink on paper, the shiny varnishes, the silky
lacquers, the satiny mattes.
I love the press of letters in thick paper, the roughness sizzles my
fingers with centuries of craft embedded in pulped old rags.
My hands caress the leather of old bindings crumbling like
I sing these pleasures of white paper and black ink, of the small
jab of the hard cover corner at the edge of my diaphram, of the
look of type, of the flip of a page, of the sinful abandon of the
turned down corner, the reckless possessiveness of my marginal
The cover picture as much a part of the book as the contents
itself–like Holden Caufield in his red cap turned backwards
staring away from us at what we all thought we should become.
I also love those great fat bibles evangelists wave like otter pelts,
the long greying sets of unreadable authors, the tall books of
boyhood enthusiastically crayoned, the embossed covers of
adolescents, the tiny poetry anthologies you could slip in your
And the yellowing cookbooks of recipes for glace blanche dupont
and Argentine mocha toast, their stains and spots souvenirs of
long evenings full of love and arguments and the talk like as not of
books, books, books…
I’m not as careful with my books as I ought to be, because I read them everywhere: while eating, brushing my teeth, on the toilet, walking, using the computer, cooking, whatever. Consequently they get water-spotted and sauce-stained, not to mention the other ills that paper is heir to.
I have thrown away three books in my lifetime. The first was an annoyingly stupid one by Jerry Sohl ; I can’t even remember its name, but it was probably published around 1958. I read it on the subway home from my summer job near Union Square and angrily tossed it in the bin at 242nd Street, where I got off. I probably should have left it on the bench for a reader who might have appreciated it.
The second was the concluding volume of James Blish’s Cities in Flight. I read it my first year in college, about the same time as the Sohl. Blish was a fine writer but I was so furious at his solving his plot difficulties by colliding the entire universe with an entire fucking antiuniverse that I tossed it in the dorm fireplace. I repent of my impetuosity.
The third was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. Having been deceived by good (!) reviews of The Da Vinci Code, I bought it at an airport bookstore to read on a flight from Dulles to Milan. I read the whole damned thing (I do not use the expression lightly). I could not put it down until I reached Zurich, where I threw it down before my connecting flight. It was a better fate than it deserved. I regret nothing.
I read a lot of cheap, poorly made paperbacks as a kid and young adult. My eyesight is, um, complicated. Often I found that I couldn’t see the words on the inside margins well enough to read them comfortably unless I cracked the spine at least once, near the middle of the book. (These days, I read as much as possible on devices where I can control the text size, and where I never have to worry about words disappearing down a hill)
I read very quickly. Once I got to the age where I owned my textbooks, I discovered that by highlighting as I read, I was able to slow my brain down enough to really read actively and thoughtfully (necessary since my textbooks were often communicating dense technical information — perhaps I would have chosen differently if I had been in a different field of study). So I highlighted the heck out of them, never intending to come back and use the highlights.
I’ve been all over the map with how I treat books, and it depends heavily on the circumstances and the book. But much as some here can’t seem to relate to the idea of treating any book in the ways I just described, I can’t even begin to relate to the idea that I should have done any differently (or should feel any regret, let alone shame). The point was to read, to comprehend, to change my brain, right? (I love how Andrea McDowell put it!) Should I have gotten less from those books — or not been able to comfortably read them at all — just to preserve the pristine preciousness of the physical container?
It’s always useful to be reminded of how other humans can share your values and even passions, yet find expressions of those feelings that are almost unrecognizable to you. I don’t find it difficult to believe that everyone engaging in this conversation deeply loves books, each in their own way.
I would say that I am neutral good bordering on lawful. I used to use receipts, scrap paper, etc. But now I have transitioned entirely over to the sticky ends of post-it pads, cut out with scissors so that there is just a 1/8 inch or 3/16 inch “tail’ of not-sticky paper left over to hang onto when I re-position the bookmark.This serves two purposes,bookmark or important passage if I want to re-read that page.
I treat my books with care. I think part of it is growing up poor and books to me were things to be cherished. I still have books from my childhood that are in pristine condition. If I lent a book to someone and it came back with dog eared pages etc I would never let that person borrow one of my books again.
Chaotic Neutral. It’s not like paperbacks are printed on acid-free paper, they are not going to last forever, no matter how careful you are with them.
I actually loathe scenes in movies or TV shows when books are dragged off shelves and thrown to the floor as a room is ransacked. Push around people all you want but leave the books alone!
Like you, John, I don’t break spines, make margin notes or dog ear pages. When I buy books, at least one has the store receipt as its bookmark. I’ve had several leather bookmarks and a couple of metal ones over the years but I usually prefer the thinnest piece of paper I can find.
I remember several of the kids’ books I read in my younger years, but the first ‘grown up’ book I had was a hardcover of ‘Little Women’ that I was given for my tenth birthday. I read it but was too young to grasp large sections of it. I consider myself lucky enough to have read it again a year later and I GOT it. It’s the book that taught me to re-read books (I’ve read it at least once a year for I won’t say how many decades) because I know I will pick up on something new every time.
I’ve only disliked one book enough to throw it across the room when I objected to the ending. I remember the event (and the emotions) very well but the title not at all.
For the past decade, I’ve been pretty much completely True Neutral on that “how you treat books” alignment. When I was reading physical books, wow I could be Neutral Good or hovering between Lawful and Neutral Evil, depending on the book, the edition, the type or intended use. 😅
It’s so nice with ebooks and PDFs that we can do non-destructive editing (like highlights, annotations, bookmarks, etc). 🙂
I generally treat my books with reasonable care—they’re mine, and I like to look after my things. (Obviously I treat other people’s books with extreme care.)
I used to have that very “books are holy!” thing, but two things broke me of that:
The second thing was indeed Fadiman’s essay, which I read some (checks Amazon) oh crap, uh, 18 years ago.
But the first thing that happened, and which primed me to be responsive to Fadiman’s point, was working in paperback publishing. And more importantly, within the first year of beginning my career, having two MAJOR bestseller titles, in two consecutive months, get screwed up so that we had to pulp the first print runs.
When you have been the assistant to the person personally ordering 1.5 million copies of a book pulped, you are forced to get over any feelings about books as an object. I was horrified for the first one, and only slightly less horrified for the second one. And in the intervening years I have personally witnessed hundreds of thousands of books pulped, because sometimes you just need to clear warehouse space, and the remainder dealers don’t want everything you’ve got.
I don’t deliberately crack spines, but if it happens, eh, I know how good glues are these days. (Pretty dang good. About the only way to make a book printed in this century come apart at the spine is to leave it somewhere hot for a long time, like in the back seat of your car all summer.) Similarly, I usually don’t dog-ear (I’m neutral good on that chart), though it’s not out of the realm of possibility for me.
But honestly, I mostly read ebooks these days, which alleviates the problem—but creates a different, similar problem: am I destroying my copy of a book by being unable to keep track of which ebook platform I bought it on? At least my worn-down old paperbacks from the 80s are easy to find. I don’t even alphabetize but I can locate everything in my several-thousand-book library.
My older sister taught me how to read even long paperbacks without creasing the spine. I’ve had people accuse me of not reading my books for that reason. I’m an eBook reader now for different reasons, but my bookshelves are full of ancient paperbacks, yellowed by time, that are still structurally pristine.
However, I had a teacher who would take the class copies of classics with broken spines and use them for quizzes. We each got a page or two and had to identify where it came from in the story. Besides making me hate The Sun Also Rises for life, it was an important lesson that books could be so mistreated and still serve a purpose.
I have a very similar relationship to books as our host. Mom was a librarian, and I moved a lot, which at least for me imparted a bit of a variation. I do very much like my books; they’re one of the few things I’m a bit materialist about. I treat my books well. I have a tendency to get on topical kicks semi-randomly, and the little groupings of books become a sort of physical memento; browsing them can take me back to what I was up to at the time.
But learning how mom culled the herd at the library also made me think about them as a group. In her case, it was about meeting demand and keeping them lendable. I ended up considering them more as heavy, space occupying objects. Which, combined with the fact that I moved around a lot in and between cities featuring small apartments, made me OK with releasing many of them to roam free. (Although I did lose a collection of midcentury science fiction paperbacks, many of which came from browsing The Other Change Of Hobbit in Berkeley, dog rest its soul, to a storage unit theft, and the person or persons responsible shall burn in the 11th circle of triple mega hell forever.)
I’ve been in my current place for nearly a decade, and it is much larger than it needs to be. So the books have have thoroughly colonized about 2.5 rooms and apparently began enthusiastically breeding when I’m not looking. Next time I move, there will be blood.
Reading these and guffawing into the palm of my hand.
Thank you, Kate; that is exactly our problem with donations. As valuable as a book may have been to someone at one point, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is just as valuable to everyone else. YOU may have been that book’s one reader. On my old blog, I ranted about donations that were moldy, chewed, covered in dust and droppings (bug, mouse, and other), peed on, watered, falling apart, or old enough to be completely useless. Some are filled with post-its, highlighting, scribbles, and commentary to the point of being illegible. They were either tendered to us with the air of conferring a boon, or clandestinely dumped off when we couldn’t genteelly refuse them. I love books, but not when their best use would be as a base for a fire in a Franklin stove. Many new books we get at the library are very badly bound, whereas books from 80 years ago can still be in fine condition.
I am usually on the ‘good’ spectrum of bookmarkery, with occasional forays into neutral. Books have come in with bacon strips (raw; I presume cooked ones are eaten), pot leaves, toenail clippings, condom wrappers (thank Ghu not condoms), foreign currency, boarding passes, and the ever-present bookstore receipts used as bookmarks, as well as actual bookmarks.
On first go, I will usually get a paperback or e-book to verify if I want to keep this book permanently, or borrow it from the library. If it’s a ‘keeper’, I will look for a hardback, and sneakily put a plastic jacket on it; if no hardbacks are available, I will be very very careful with the paperbacks. Many of my older paperbacks are thoroughly battered, because they have followed me across the country and through hard territory. I reread my collection periodically, and see if the reasons I kept a book are still valid; if not, it gets weeded.
Neutral good here.
While I have actual bookmarks I use, they tend to stay with the book they were used for. So I’ve also done the scrap of paper/lottery ticket/BART ticker route.
But then, I also love finding such things in old used books. My favs so far are the PanAm boarding pass and the laminated San Francisco Muni ticket back when they were about 5 inches long.
While I’m here, have you read “This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save us All” by Marilyn Johnson? Highly recommended and a fun read on top of it.
A carnal relationship to my lovers has never involved deliberately breaking their spine. On the other hand, I’m definitely chaotic good/neutral in my bookmarking practices.
This discussion reminds me a little of the one about whether listening to an audiobook is really reading or whether e-books or physical books are better. I don’t usually write in my books or dog-ear them, and I’m careful with books that don’t belong to me. But to me, what matters in a book isn’t the ink or paper. It’s the way those things encode something that comes to life in my head.
I used to work in the library. We used to have to hide from certain patrons when weeding books. We also got some real doozies as returned books, sometimes…(The how to train your dog book with teeth marks in it). I’ve got a few books I am struggling with how to get rid of, because they are religious or awful (or both). I never ever ever wrote in textbooks until I got to the US and was told I needed to by teachers. But I always hated it. Even though I love old cookbooks with notes on the recipes, I never even do that to my cookbooks (because I never really follow a recipe from scratch). I’m also another one who usually goes by memory of where I am in the book…although I’ve been known to use odd non-bookmark bookmarks, in terms of the corner of my iPad or some such.
I range from Lawful Good to Chaotic Neutral. The only spines I’ve ever cracked are of long paperbacks that I frequently reread (e.g. my first copy of the Goblin Emperor).
A million years ago, when I was a teacher, I had students who used to read books by bending the front and back covers together, and of course splitting the spine. Whenever I saw one of them doing it, I used to ask, “How would you like it if I bent you in half the wrong way around?”
I do write in non-fiction books that I don’t re-sell. This writing occasionally includes heckling: “Nonsense!” “For God’s sake!” And I correct typos and grammatical errors in my own copies (not library books!): a professional tic.
Many thanks! I still have my copy of Ex Libris, and am thrilled to hear about another collection.
True neutral and lawful evil are the wrong way around in that grid. E-“books” are firmly on the evil side. Especially the pricing, there is no reason they should cost as much as physical media.
“…forever a black mark in the annals of their life”
I hear you. I love her dearly, and have done for almost 34 years, but my wife intentionally cracks the spines of her books. I know we’re not going to the same afterlife….
I have never forgotten Fadiman’s description of courtly and carnal love for books. Unlike you, I _can_ “imagine” people, who actually claim to love books, doing despicable things to them, but one reason I fall between Lawful and True Neutral is that I _can_ mark up e-books without making them scream (the other reason being that I can rarely find a proper bookmark, so fall into the LN category when reading physical books.
My first paperback copy of Lord of the Rings fell apart from overuse (in the middle of a University class on Fantasy Lit—I was proud of that!). That’s the worst I will admit to…
Because a lot of people seemed to miss it in the ensuing kerfuffle, someone queried the instigator of said kerfuffle about how they dealt with the footnotes in Infinite Jest.
I believe their response puts them very solidly in the carnal camp:
Personally, I’m one of those that doesn’t fit on this scale – I just more or less remember where I was, and scan through to get to the right place… (Physical book memory is a thing – betcha a lot of people here can pick up a favourite book and riffle to nearly the exact right place of a favourite quote).
I’m trying to convert my kids from CN to LG, though.
I like the analogy between books and cars, though I probably love my books more than my car. I’ve never deliberately mean to books – always use something as a bookmark, never dog-ear – but at the same time, I love to read during meals, so I’m pretty tolerant of the occasional small stain (and even more so on my cookbooks!) and I’ve been known to use just about anything as a bookmark, once including someone else’s knitting project (oops! It was a on a group beach vacation, the knitting was right there on the table next to the couch where I’d been reading…)
I used to hate reading books after my mother read them, because she was (let’s face it) a barbarian who would fold down corner after corner after corner until I wanted to scream, “What do you do, read one page at a time?!” In later years she did start using pieces of paper to mark her place. My wife and I have a huge collection of bookmarks so one is always at hand, helpful since I am often reading three or four things at once.
Occasionally I will correct usage or spelling in a book, but only in erasable pencil.
I’m very very gentle with my books, to the point they often appear unused. I once lent a series, in hardback, to my then-girlfriend, who returned them with such heavily skewed spines I couldn’t believe she’d managed to accomplish it in one reading. That wasn’t the reason we broke up, but it certainly did nothing to convince me we belonged together.
Ah yes, weeding books. My wife was in charge of ordering new books for her elementary school’s library – and later for creating individual class libraries in a different school (but I digress). As part one, she (with my help as fetcher and carrier) had to (cue scary music) weed the library. This was probably early to mid-90s, and we found incredibly dated artifacts – one book talking about Our 48 States, a book about Africa with a map that still had the colonial maps – as current – plus a tome called The Negro in America. She purposely picked a day when the “librarian” (he wasn’t really, but saw it as an easy way to get out of the classroom and still get paid as a teacher) was away. Under the Principal’s direction, we were ruthless, throwing (literally) dozens of unsalvageable crap down a shaft. When the librarian came in the next day he almost had a breakdown, went to the basement to try and bring back all those books, and I don’t think he was ever on speaking terms with my wife again (and we had been to his kids; bar and bat mitzvahs).
These days, we have a free “library” in the laundry room of our apartment building, and I have donated dozens of books to the many hundreds (thousands) down there. You take a book, you read it, then return it if you don’t want it, and donate anything you are done with. I am frequently amazed at how many people still seem to buy first edition hardbacks and donate them when they’re done with them.
I agree with whoever (too lazy to look) praised the Anne Fadiman books. I love them too.
I honestly don’t know if I could read a paperback without cracking the spine; books I’ve actually read look read. But these days I’m more a True Neutral person, much less heavy.
Once in my life I cut a paperback in two pieces because it was physically too big for me to hold. (Hell’s Gate by David Weber and Linda Evans) It was a book that could have used a bit more editing for length, but I still have it on my shelf and it is still in reasonably good condition, aside from being in two pieces.
Shortly after that (for some definitions of ‘shortly’) I switched to a tablet and a Kindle app. I now mark my place with a word of blue highlighting, and before that I marked my place by leaving the book open face-down, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t gotten any less chaotic in my oldage.
Never mark or take pages out of the book (very occasionally mark passage non-fiction text book when revising but even then rarely because I might want to resell). Everything else though – I hate paperbacks that are so stiff the book wants to close itself every time you blink so backs to get ‘eased’. have used most hings as bookmark and leave face down.
My Aunt is a librarian, and when she reads a book, she opens it only far enough to be able to *just* see the words on the insides of the pages. My Uncle, her older brother, delights in cracking the spines of paperbacks in front of her.
This is a fascianting study. I can definitely see the reasoning behind the “carnal” attitude—that books are objects for the use of the user that uses them. But damaging them still feels wrong. Not least because, dude: if you damage the book, and it’s a book you want to keep, it just physically won’t last as long.
In my later years at home, when doorstop mass paperbacks were becoming a thing, my dad would cut them into slices so he and my mom could read them (more nearly) at the same time.
My brother and I were both appalled by this. I have mass PBs I’ve owned for forty years that I’ve read multiple times that, oxidation aside, are still in mint condition. I have a friend (who I otherwise love) who I loaned a Favorite Volume to, who felt free to break the spine, and seems to just not understand that it was not his book to break.
And people who break spines just to get under the skin of people who are bothered by that? I’m sorry, those people are just assholes.
Reminiscent of “Spider vs The Hax of Sol III” where crappy books were rated on their performance in a wood burning stove.
Look, books are not sacred instruments. They are *tools* that convey information and/or entertainment. Not fetish objects. Do you wax ecstatic about your Kindle or laptop or TV set? Do you polish your dvd player? Do you mourn your old cassette-playing boom box?
If the book is worthwhile, it will be *reprinted.* if not, not. Meanwhile *enjoy* it.
Back before the Kindle came into my life, I would purposely break the spine on a paperback because it was easier on my hands to hold (carpal tunnel in both hands). I hardly read hardbacks because they were so expensive but those I made sure to take good care of. I only ever marked up textbooks except for this one instance: I read a paragraph in East of Eden that felt like a kick to the chest. It had such an impact on me that I kept going back to it and finally just highlighted it to make it easier to find. And lastly – I had this really, really awful of semester at school and I swore that when it was over I would burn the books. I didn’t actually think I would but I ended up doing just that and I feel not one ounce of shame over it. God, that semester sucked. I like to think that I am a book lover and I take care of them but I guess I am passionate about the things in them so the passion wins out over care.
Lawful to neutral good. I always use a proper bookmark, most of which have the name of a library or bookstore on them (my favorites are from Wicked Good Books in Salem, MA). In the extremely rare instances where I have to use a non-genuine bookmark, it gets replaced at the earliest opportunity. I have bookmarks dating back to the 1950’s that I still use, and a number of friends have graced me with some nice leather and wooden ones over the years, but I prefer the basic paper ones. The only ones I refuse to use are the thin metal ones than are often sold as souvenirs; they tend to tear a page if you’re not careful.
Okay: I manage a small museum on bookbinding and the history of the book as a physical object. So I have thoughts.
At different times I have filled every single BINGO square on the card except the “tears page out when done with it” one. And some books–users manuals, cookbooks, things of that sort–it seems to me are meant not only to be used, sometimes rather roughly (when you’re up to your hips in pastry and the only way to turn the page when your hands are otherwise engaged is with your tongue, needs must) and notated as necessary (“note: recipe specifies 1 tsp salt. Either that’s a typo or the author was the Salt Monster from Star Trek TOS”).
There are paperbacks (and a few hardcovers) I have replaced because I have read them so often. Many of those now live in my iBooks account so I can read them at will with no more damage to their paper cousins.
I am, I guess, a practical reader. If I cannot find a receipt or a bookmark or a pen, I have been known to dog-ear a page. Nowadays, I would never do that to a very old book or one that was physically vulnerable (old paperbacks? I’ll get up and find something to mark my pace, because those books have been through enough). On the other hand, I really do not get the “let’s buy a book and carve it up to make art” thing. Very often the objects that result are pretty, but… couldn’t you use almost anything else?
If you own expensive hardcovers, please do write your name in them! And annotate them, especially if you have interesting thoughts! It gives you an extra window into who owned what books, when. Add your name to the family Bible! I used to study what had happened to books, and this stuff is invaluable for the archivist. I loved how my library’s copy of Bosworth and Toller (an Anglo-Saxon Dictionary) was Toller’s own copy, that he’d written his name in before it was donated to the library (presumably on his death). That’s history.
However, for the love of whatever’s holy, don’t do this to books you don’t own. Please, please no. I found it very easy to resist the temptation to add my name after Toller’s, because I’m not a jackass.
If I’d bought it secondhand at a store, though, I certainly would have done so. It’s a window into the book’s past.
another off-grid reader here – just remember the page number, or if I forget that, remember where I was in the book. No bookmark needed.
I do love the ebook reader for those huge tomes like War and Peace, etc. Also for Dickens – most of my physical copies are those tiny print Everymans’ Editions, which I struggle to read anymore.
I took notes from university textbooks in the same way as I’d take notes in a lecture – the processing required to transcribe and rephrase the text helped to remember it, in ways that highlighting and scribbling in the book can not. The university library had numbers of books which had been highlit and scribbled in, typically the scribbles were moronic and the highlights banal: which of course may just be a consequence of being the kind of person who’d damage other people’s property, rather than a judgment on highlighters and scribblers in their own books.
‘carnal’ isn’t really the right word for damaging books. Carnal love relishes the body, rather than tattooing or lacerating it. Doing those things to books is more of a kink, to my mind..
I break spines, but I never dog-ear. Dog-earing so offends me I un-dog-ear used copies. A certain friend never got to borrow a book from me a second time when he returned a reference book with key pages tagged by metal paper clips and all sorts of microtears from when he moved the clips around.
I’ve twice bought second copies just for writing in, and I did not like the experience. I once lent an advanced mathematical reference to a genius friend, and it came back with all sorts of incredibly helpful pencilled-in notes. I was torn between never lending him a book again versus forcing him to read all my books.
I’ve gotten through a few long and difficult to read books by having multiple copies. The hardcover is at home, and the paperback is for carrying around. I sometimes have a third copy at work. My hardcover copy of Marguerite Young Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is still intact, a decent used copy with book jacket. But the paperback (in two volumes) fell apart way too easily, so I gave in and carried 100-page chunks around. Not my usual style, but it worked!
I’ve bought books with previous owner writing, always reluctantly. Thrice I’ve been bit by major spoilers. It’s always been in a classic, presumably for help writing a course essay. “This is the first hint X kills himself in the end.” I controlled myself in each such case, and did not track down the person who signed his or her name on the inside cover to share my thoughts.
I’ve destroyed anti-vax influenced books that have come into my possession.
Using a book as a secret storage location is an ancient idea. The result is called a “smuggler’s bible”. Google around for instructions on how to make your own. I learned of the concept from Joseph McElroy A Smuggler’s Bible.
I admit to dog-earing paperbacks, because I’m not concerned about a paperback’s position in my library. If I really enjoy a book, I will eventually get a hardcover. If I love a book, I will look for a private press or otherwise special edition of the book (i.e. Folio Society, Easton Press, Subterranean Press, etc.).
With Hardcovers, I use the dust jacket flap as my bookmark. The left flap for the first half of the book, and immediately switch to the right flap as soon as I hit the halfway mark. Many special editions have a ribbon which removes the need for a bookmark, but on the rare occasion I actually read through my special editions, I use a real bookmark.
Worth noting… I use my Nook regularly for authors/books who I am unsure of, when travelling, or when re-reading a book. I like to keep my nice editions as pristine as possible, so I tend to use e-books when re-reading those novels, and I just peruse the nice editions every now and then (especially if illustrated!).
I usually find I recommend books more often than I loan, but I am very cautious about loaning out hardcover editions and wouldn’t dare loaning a special edition.
Uh, Dana, I mostly see your point, but I’m wondering if you’ve ever been in the presence of a real hardcore audiophile. I knew a fellow who built his house around a concrete pillar that went all the way down to bedrock so that he would have a truly stable place to put his turntable.
Yeah, those people bore me stiff ;-)
I’ve done 6 of the 9: all of the good and all of the neutral. None of the evil. Dogearing offends me. I have torn up newspapers and magazines as I’ve read them but never books.
Some of the above commentators don’t use bookmarks because they remember where they left off(which is awesomely cool). I can’t do that. Why? I lack that talent. More importantly, I read more than one book at a time and there’s no way I can remember what page I was on. That is especially true if it has been days or weeks since I last read the book.
At WorldCon I was asked to sign a very battered copy of my first novel, which had been The Book That Got That Fan Through Her Teen Years, and I seriously tear up thinking about that. It is such an honor to have written That Book for someone.
The thing that Ed and I do with books that shocks some of our friends is that we make notes in our cookbooks. EXTENSIVE notes. Any recipe either of us makes regularly, we experiment with and improve on, and of course it’s easier to remember what we did last time that worked so well if we write it down.
Also, my preferred bookmark strategy is not listed here, which is that after each election cycle I gather up all the postcard-type mailings we got (those are always on thick, glossy paper) and use a paper cutter to slice them into bookmark-sized strips and then I keep those bookmarks in mugs around the house so that they’re handy, but also I don’t need to keep track of any individual bookmark, since it’s just recycled junk mail.
I look after books, but I don’t keep individual books very long for the most part. I’ll read it, wait a few months, read it again, then put it in a “free library” somewhere. Or I borrow them from the library, or I have electronic copies. Those… mostly get treated the same way. I am slowly working out a way to mark books on my e-reader so that I know which authors I want to read more of, but there’s a contest between me and the device about who is in charge and what I should be allowed to do with said device. I am not really winning that one. It’s possible that I will go back to paper books purely to avoid the “you don’t own the book, or the device you’re reading it on” problem.
>> If the book is worthwhile, it will be *reprinted.* if not, not.>>
If the book is popular, it will be reprinted.
That’s not the same thing.
There are books I have and take good care of because I don’t have any expectation they’ll be reprinted in my lifetime. There are books I’d like to read that are out of print and more expensive than I’m willing to pay (and if I ever have the time on my hands, maybe I’ll try to track them down via interlibrary loan). But to assume that if they’re worthwhile they’ll be reasonably-easily available is to assume that the book buying public shares my tastes, and while they share some of them, they don’t seem to share all of them.
I deefinitely take care of all the books I own or borrow from the public library. Nothing worse than checking a book out from the library, only to find out its either damaged externally (e.g. broken spin) or internally, (e.g defaced with “grammar correction”.
I do know when I was a kid that my grandfather used to give me hell whenever I would return a book to him dogeared. Would rant and rave about how he couldn’t use the (relatively brand new) book as a trade-in for other books (a quarter truth as the man was an extremely avid hoarder). Stopped it right quick when he threatened to ban me from borrowing his books.
When I studied, the word about German law students was that they intentionally a) hid, b) ripped out important sections of, and c) blacked-out important sections of books they needed for exam prep, so that their competitors could not make use of them.
Davvv – if you like Simon Morden (and you seriously *should* – his Equations of Life (Samuil Petrovitch) books are superbly good), he has started printing and hand binding copies for people. They look really, really good, and would be very personal thing to own.
You can’t depend upon a book being reprinted, especially paperbacks.
Most of the SF books in my collection have been out of print for decades, including some hardbacks (I was once a member of the SF book club.) And most were printed on acidic pulp paper, so the pages are turning brown and brittle.
I used to just borrow books, but I am in the habit of remembering a book I read long ago and want to reread, so I now buy any book that looks interesting, and in the rare cases I really don’t ever want to reread it, I give it to the local library for their book sale.
Also, my brother (who I suspect is a Fox News viewer) will often send me “conservative” books, which I usually can’t force myself to finish. He also once sent me books supposedly explaining women to men and men to women as if they were totally separate species (I think the authors and the intended audience were Fundamentalist Christian), which I gave up on after a few too many WTF moments. They almost always go to the library book sale.
When I was in grad school for math, a number of the books that were recommended to me were English translations of Russian textbooks. They’d been long out of print (maybe the Russian versions, too) and were only available as bound photocopies for several hundred USD. I tried to track down a second-hand copy, but no luck — you have to wait for the current owners to die before they go on the market. And I gather nobody’d bothered to write new ones on the subject, since the old one was such a well-written exposition on the topic.
Very popular post for comments! I too am an occasional spine-cracker, mostly depending on the binding–some paperbacks have very narrow margins and my painful joints don’t allow pressing the book carefully open for long. I love Tor’s books, the binding is wonderful, the books lie open easily, so there’s no need for damage.
Book mauler here, after decades as a collector. Books are kipple, an inexcusable mountain of indulgence in our landfilling age. I worked in the used book trade for many years, have personally thrown into the trash a million books. We need to break the habit. I read ebooks only now, and will never buy another physical book, used or new.
The meaningful aspect of a book is the imprint of the author’s mind on the words and images therein, the rest is fetish.
Like our host I fall into the careful spectrum for how I treat my books. What I have noticed is that lately the paperbacks I have purchased appear to be made from ‘lower quality’ materials. No matter how carefully I treat them they look worn much more quickly than they used to.
I’m all over the map on the chart; anywhere from lawful good (though with paper bookmarks which I keep in a beside table drawer) to chaotic neutral (rarely though, and not a heavy book). We had very few books in the house when I was growing up, but I always had a stack of library books to read and did not develop the habit of marking in my books until I went to college and found underlining helpful. My paperbacks don’t have broken spines after I read them, or dog-eared pages. Mostly now I read ebooks, and I love that when I drop the book because I’ve fallen asleep while reading I haven’t lost my place.
In elementary school the librarian showed the class how to properly open a new hardback book for the first time to keep from damaging the spine (start at front and back, open about 50 pages on each end, and repeat until you reach the center), and to this day I open my new physical books that way. The times that books I have loaned out have come back with damaged spines or dust covers were distressing, so these days I only loan out paperbacks that I don’t expect to get back.
The only time I’ve ever considered destroying a book was Stephen King’s “Pet Semetary”. It was an excellent read, but it left poor teenage me in such a state that I had an intense urge to deal with the emotion I was feeling by incinerating the book after finishing.
Over the course of some months, at the weekly meetings of Bay Area Science Fiction Association, we had a running gag where the same paperback of Heinlein’s Friday would be auctioned off each week: The purchaser would take the book home, run over it with a car a few times, and bring it back so the club could auction it off again, a bit more bedraggled than before.
No, I never backed my own car over that damned thing, but will be confessed to being very amused at the tradition. And yes, i know we’re all going to Hell.